For Donald Trump, Muslim barbarism is a political strategy. It inspires the fear and hatred that binds him to his base. Muslim barbarism is so politically useful, in fact, that, when necessary, Trump creates it.
During the presidential campaign, he invented mobs of Jersey City Muslims who had celebrated 9/11. After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, he invented a conspiracy in which “many, many people, Muslims living with them, in the same area” had been in on Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s plot. This February, he invented a terrorist attack in Sweden, which he blamed on the fact that Sweden “took in large numbers” of you-know-whos. Just last week, he invented a Muslim migrant’s attack on a crippled Dutch boy.
But on Wednesday, Trump outdid himself. By announcing that America recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he didn’t just invent Muslim violence. He provoked it.
The U.S. consulate in Jerusalem is warning Americans to avoid Jerusalem’s Old City and the West Bank. The State Department is warning of violence at U.S. embassies. The violence may not come right away. As Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann told my colleague Emma Green, it’s usually “the real or perceived threat to sacred space”—especially the Temple Mount, which contains the Al Aqsa mosque—that triggers immediate bloodshed.
But over the longer term, Trump’s decision increases the odds of violence because it deepens Palestinian despair. “The fading hopes for a real change in the situation,” Yuval Diskin, former head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, wrote in 2013, “is also the reason why, at the end of the day, the Palestinians will take to the streets, leading to another round of bloody violence.” Herzl Halevi, Chief of Military Intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces, has made a similar point more recently.
Why will Trump’s move deepen Palestinian despair? Consider the context. Were there a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem—or were concrete steps underway to create one—declaring American recognition for Israeli sovereignty in West Jerusalem would be less incendiary. But Trump, unlike his three predecessors, has not said he supports the creation of a Palestinian state. And since Trump took over, Benjamin Netanyahu has stopped pretending that he supports one either. (He never really did.) Meanwhile, on the ground, roughly 100,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem live beyond Israel’s separation barrier, largely cut off from city services. Israel regularly revokes the rights of Palestinians to live in the city. And it has accelerated the construction of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, making a Palestinian capital there less and less likely.
In this context, Trump’s announcement will only further convince Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—most of whom lack citizenship in the state that controls their lives—that Israel and America are dedicated to perpetuating their lack of basic rights. And that hopelessness makes violence more likely. As Ali Jida, a Palestinian activist in Jerusalem, told Haaretz, “It isn’t just Trump’s position. It’s a buildup of all sorts of things—the Israeli soldiers’ behavior, humiliations. There’s going to be an explosion and it will center on Jerusalem.”
Trump’s action doesn’t justify Palestinian violence. Palestinian leaders have a responsibility to try to channel their people’s frustration into mass protest and civil disobedience (which, sadly, often gets less media coverage) rather than armed attacks, something Yasser Arafat failed to do at the start of the Second Intifada. But American presidents also have a responsibility not to create the conditions for further bloodshed. When it came to American recognition of Jerusalem, Trump’s predecessors—even pro-Israel hawks like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—understood that. He does not.
Why not? Ignorance may play a role. Trump’s core Israel-Palestine team—Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman—lacks any actual expertise or familiarity with the Arab world. Politics likely plays a role too. At the Zionist Organization of America gala last month, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former consigliere stressed the influence of big Republican donor and major Israel supporter Sheldon Adelson. After the release of the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump gloated about his exploits with women, Bannon declared that “most of the establishment of Republicans” abandoned him. But “Sheldon Adelson had Donald Trump’s back. Sheldon Adelson offered guidance and counsel and wisdom about how to get through it. He was there for Donald Trump about how to comport himself and how to dig down deep. And it was his guidance and his wisdom that helped get us through.” Adelson also offered money: $35 million to help elect Trump and another $5 million for his inaugural bash. And he has been pushing hard for the Jerusalem move. Another factor contributing to the decision may be the near-irrelevance of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who may well be too weak to forcefully convey to his boss the global opposition to the Jerusalem move.
Beyond all this, however, lies Trump’s relationship with Muslim violence. I doubt Trump sees himself as inciting it. More likely, he considers it to be pervasive, culturally ingrained, and inevitable no matter what America does. George W. Bush, for all his sins, at least acknowledged that U.S. foreign policy, by propping up Middle Eastern dictators, might have contributed to jihadist terrorism. Trump, by contrast, seems never to have contemplated the possibility that jihadist terrorism stems from any cause other than the inherent pathologies of Islam. He did, after all, declare last year that “Islam”—not just Muslims, but Islam itself—“hates us.”
Religious conflicts, like racial and ethnic ones, are critical to Trump’s appeal. He needs Mexican-Americans to rape and murder white girls. He needs African-American athletes to “disrespect the flag.” And he needs Muslims to explode bombs and burn American flags. The more threatening non-white, non-Christians appear, both at home and abroad, the more his supporters rely on him to keep the barbarians down and out. If Trump has to invent these dangers, he will. In the case of Jerusalem, however, he can go further: He can help create them.